By Errol Louis
October 3, 2013
Cleaning up commercial collection would help Bloomberg burnish his environmental legacy
An unlikely alliance of unions, environmental activists and neighborhood groups has presented Mayor Bloomberg with a golden opportunity to add a final flourish to his impressive, decade-long effort to make New York greener and cleaner.
It’s a gift to the mayor, whose education and public-safety policies have come under fierce political and legal attack and may not survive the next administration. Bloomberg should not miss a chance to cement his less controversial environmental legacy, which may prove more enduring.
The newly formed coalition, Transform Don’t Trash NYC, has issued a report calling on the current mayor — and the next one — to overhaul the way we collect and dispose of hundreds of tons of commercial trash that New York generates every day.
The idea is overdue. Every year, the city’s offices, restaurants and other businesses generate 3.2 million tons of garbage. By law, these companies must arrange — and pay for — removal of the waste by private haulers (household trash is handled by the city Sanitation Department).
But the commercial trash removal system has been an environmental and economic scandal for decades. In 1996, prosecutors indicted dozens of carting company executives, accusing them of running the garbage firms as branches of the Genovese and Gambino crime organizations. The mayor at the time, Rudy Giuliani, created a government agency, the Trade Waste Commission (now called the Business Integrity Commission), to weed out the crooks.
But Rudy didn’t kill the beast. This year, federal prosecutors arrested 30 waste haulers, calling them members of the Gambino, Genovese and Luchese crime families and accusing them of racketeering — everything from loansharking to shaking down legitimate businesses and dividing up the New York area into territories controlled by different mobsters.
To make matters worse, according to Transform Don’t Trash, a large number of commercial waste companies compete in the same neighborhoods, with multiple diesel-powered trucks running up and down the same streets, spewing soot and leaving potholes and chewed-up pavement in their wake. A lack of oversight leaves low-level waste workers badly underpaid and exposed to poisons, disease and accidents, making trash collection and removal one of the 10 deadliest occupations in America.
And most of the garbage finally arrives in low-income, outer-borough neighborhoods. Manhattan, which generates 41% of the city’s commercial waste, has only 2% of the city’s solid waste transfer stations and 3% of the recycling facilities, according to the coalition.
The small businesses sick of being shaken down by mobsters, the unions representing the truck workers tired of being injured and underpaid, and environmentalists battling air pollution decided to form a coalition of the fed-up. They took to the steps of City Hall on Wednesday to call for change.
“For over 25 years, low-income communities and communities of color have been buried by a mountain of commercial waste,” said Eddie Bautista, executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. “We need answers. We need the mayoral candidates to tell us how they intend to address the last frontier of waste disparity.”
Bautista and other members of Transform Don’t Trash want the city to replace the current commercial carting free-for-all with city-defined franchises offered to reputable companies through an open bidding process. In exchange for handling all removal in a particular area — reducing the number of truck trips — haulers would have to pay decent wages and replace sooty diesel trucks with cleaner-burning vehicles.
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